For many years I have had an image that I carry around with me – it is the notion that the world could be completely other than it appears if we had eyes to see it in some other way. I suspect it’s originally a science-fiction idea that got into my head but the idea also seems just theological enough that I’ve never been able to shake it.
The notion gained strength when I once read in St. Theophan (the Recluse) that our guardian angels see us not as we see one another, but immediately see the state of our souls. Thus (and this was the part that got my attention) he said our guardian angels see us a “greasy” when we’re full of sin. Righteousness, of course, shines as light. Imagine, one glance and you see the state of your soul (or your neighbors). I’m generally glad that I cannot see what my guardian angel sees.
The same idea has carried my thoughts to other ways of seeing the world – and some of these are scientific realities. It has become a commonplace to see the world through any number of lenses and wavelengths of light. Thus we can see the world through a lens that shows where the most energy is being produced (or wasted). There are a whole variety of such maps.
There is another map, this time in my imagination, that is not unlike St. Theophan’s angelic vision of the world. It is thinking of the world as it is – if we could see the depths of our hearts – if the map of our world showed us what was happening in the human heart.
To a degree we can see such things – at least some of the effects of them. We can see a degradation of humanity in certain places. It is hard to gauge these things. Are they getting worse? Are they getting worse at a pace faster than we’ve ever known? We do not know (or at least I do not know).
But this same meditation – the world as seen in the depths of the heart – also makes it very difficult to know where the Church is at any given moment (not its location – but it’s spiritual state of health). I have now studied Church statistics for nearly 30 years. They tell us many things but they also mask many things. Church attendance is an interesting and even important figure – but it is such a generalized thing that it is hard to make judgments based on such knowledge. Things are clearly undergoing cultural shifts during the last decade or so. Some Churches themselves are undergoing such metamorphoses that it is hard to know what is going on.
And thus we come to the place each of us lives – and the lives with whom we share the place we live. We cannot know the depths of the human heart at a glance (we’re not angels), but with careful listening and careful observation we can know something. I know as a priest that some in my parish are making great struggles within the realm of their heart and are engaging the gospel as they never have before in their lives. And I am sure that my parish is not unique.
This terrain of the heart is something that lies before each of us. We will not be able to make great generalizations such as those of statisticians. But we will not be held responsible for knowing the shape of the world’s spiritual terrain. We will, however, be profoundly responsible for the warfare that takes place within the depths of our own heart. Did I struggle to pray? Did I struggle to forgive my enemy and beg for the grace to love what I cannot love without God? Did I allow my heart to be made tender by the mercies of God and share those mercies with everyone around me? (I’ll be more specific). Did I allow my heart to be made tender by the mercies of God and share those mercies with anyone around me? (That’s more to the point).
One of the Fathers said that when the end of time comes and the “book” is opened for judgment, the “book” will be the human heart. What is written there will be the true history of the world. And then we shall know even as we are known.